When remodeling your home, keep the future physical needs in mind

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It happens all the time: A 50-something couple has shuttled the kids through college and they finally have the time and money to do some home remodeling. The couple spends thousands of dollars beautifying their kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms, making modifications they feel will serve them and the house as long as they live there.

Too often, however, older homeowners neglect their own needs when they remodel. Nobody likes to face the facts of aging, but the bottom line is that getting older often means becoming less mobile, less active and, in some cases, incapacitated. For many, it breaks down like this: You can either remodel with your later years in mind or end up forced out of your home.

Mary Jo Peterson, a certified kitchen designer from Brookfield, Conn., is a proponent of universal design concepts, an approach to home design that breaks with tradition and allows for greater mobility and accessibility. The author of two books on the topic — "Universal Kitchen Planning" and "Universal Bathroom Planning" (National Kitchen and Bath Association) — Peterson thinks it's about time we reconsidered much of the received wisdom in home design.

"Traditionally, our environments and products have been designed for the tall, able-bodied adult male," she said. "And that's only about 7.5 percent of our population. So what we're doing as we promote and adopt universal design is to incorporate ideas and methods and design concepts that will accommodate more people more of the time.

"We don't always plan for changes in our life that [result] in our environment not working as well for us as we need it to. Most of the time, we adapt to our environment, and what we're doing is getting the environment to adapt to us."

Not surprisingly, there is a stigma attached to this sort of approach. People don't always like to think of themselves as "senior citizens" or "elderly"; nor are they interested in being reminded of their mortality when they remodel a bathroom or put in new kitchen cabinets.

But universal design concepts can be hip and convenient.

"It's about breaking traditions, doing nontraditional things," Peterson said. "And one of the biggest examples of that is moving things to different levels. We believed that a dishwasher had to be under a 36-inch counter. We accepted that; that's just the way it was. But now, dishwashers are made at many different heights."

William K. Wasch, author of "Home Planning for Your Later Years" (Beverly Cracom, [800]-341-0880), has an abundance of simple, cost-effective ideas designed to make your home more practical. The kitchen, he says, is a good place to start because so much time is spent in this room.

"I recommend clearing out the space underneath the kitchen sink because you do need to get under there," Wasch said. "You can also try to put the stove and microwave at an accessible height. Although some people are resistant to it, I also recommend putting in glass cabinet doors so you can see what you've got."

Basements and cellars, he added, are often problematic.

"In many older homes, the washer and dryer are in the basement. I've done assessments for older people and I say, `Why don't you bring the washer and dryer up into the kitchen?' Cellars are real disasters because most accidents among older people — almost 40 percent — are falls. Those cellar stairs, usually with only one rail and poor lighting, are a real killer."

Wasch considers undersized bathrooms to be one of the biggest problems that older people face. If there is any way to add physical space to the main bathroom — by taking out a wall or a closet — do it.

Installing grab bars in the bathroom so you can get in and out of the tub easily is also a good idea.

"It's expensive," Wasch acknowledged. "Redoing a bathroom can cost $4,000 to $5,000, but if you want to stay in your house and in your neighborhood, then it makes sense."

As for some less expensive adjustments to your home, Wasch suggests replacing all doorknobs with levers, installing sliding doors whenever possible, raising electrical outlets to a height of 18 inches off the ground (for less bending over), investing in closet organizers and maintaining good natural lighting whenever possible.

The idea isn't to think like an old person, but rather to think ahead.

"Universal design concepts don't create a Peter Pan world where everything works for everybody, because that's just not the case," Peterson said. "Each of us is different. But what we're doing is embracing those differences instead of segregating people based on difference."